Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Politics and Prose
By Byron Borger
April 18, 2014
We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God David T. Koyzis (Pickwick Publications; 2014) $29.00
David Koyzis’s earlier book Political Visions & Illusions is one of the must-read books for those who want to understand the Center for Public Justice’s uniquely Christian view of civic life. More than being merely non-partisan, CPJ is trying to work out a distinctively Christian approach to politics. Koyzis gives us an astute, Biblically based critique of contemporary ideologies, those of the left and the right, pointing us to better understandings.
Last month, I reviewed The Good of Politics by CPJ founder James Skillen. Skillen explores how the state is qualified by legal authority and how our common life as citizens should be informed by a proper understanding of the ways various social spheres inter-relate. He explains the historical development of this pluriform vision of a differentiated society and how we can seek public justice within our modern pluralistic societies.
David Koyzis’s new book We Answer to One Another (an excellent book to read alongside The Good of Politics) backs up from the political conversation as such, and asks more foundational questions: What do we mean by authority? What is power? What is the human vocation given to us by God, and how do we properly exercise our insight, authority, and power? Why do so many citizens resist notions of submission to authorities?
Koyzis is a helpful teacher and a clear writer, offering illuminating case studies illustrating the relevance of the complicated theories he explores. He starts each chapter with a fascinating narrative that sets the stage for the matters he explores in that chapter. The book presumes some familiarity with social and political philosophy, as Koyzis routinely cites classic philosophers such as Hobbes, Mill, Locke, and John Rawls, as well as significant theorists such as Max Weber and Peter Berger, who have all shaped or given influential accounts of our culture’s fundamental confusion about the role of authority.
Koyzis explains that there is a tendency to think of freedom and authority as mortal enemies; human dignity requires agency, seen as freedom from authority. This is a truly modern construct. Ancient cultures, with arranged marriages and inherited occupations, offered few possibilities for people to have much autonomy. Traditional cultures are often defined by a rigid authoritarianism and most modern people are glad for the choices and opportunities the modern world affords. Yet a profound problem develops when human autonomy becomes an idol and when the driving spirit of culture reveals this dialectic between freedom and control.
Using profound insights from Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and others, Koyzis argues that the roots of Western culture have created a deep quandary; the disclosure of legitimate freedom and human agency has led to idolatrous autonomy which erodes normative views of authority and causes subsequent social disruption. But he shows a way out of this quandary in a return to the Biblical notion found so beautifully in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8: humans are given authority by God and our office leads to the task of opening up creation. Made in the image of the Divine King and given offices in which to serve, we are not autonomous but accountable. As Václav Havel has said, the secret of being human is the matter of our responsibility.
To be responsible means to honor authority and to exercise authority, and we all intuit this every day in very common ways. Koyzis brilliantly moves from detailed nuances of philosophical difference, explaining how scholars describe authority and power, to the most commonplace, showing how we yield to, work with, exercise, and resist authority dozens of times a day. Humans are created to forge and live within authority structures that are built into the orderly nature of creation. Parents, teachers, business leaders, pastors, artists, and so many others use God-given power within their respective fields of expertise and social or legal authority. Yet our political theorists and thought leaders continue to revolt against notions of authority.
Jonathan Chaplain clarifies the need for Koyzis’ project: “Liberal societies, regarding themselves as premised on the generative moral autonomy of the individual, have a constitutive problem with authority -- freedom needs no justification, only authority.”
Those of us who support CPJ’s vision of Christian political service and the proper exercise of authority in the public square need to consider how our argument sounds to those who see freedom from authority as a criterion of a good society. We must give an account of why being in relationships that “answer to one another” allows for humane cultural flourishing. As Jim Skillen says of We Answer to One Another, this language of office and authority is “the most contemporary word of wisdom we and our neighbors throughout the world need to hear today.”
May I use my authority as bookseller for CPJ friends to say that many of us need to read this remarkable, nuanced, and very rewarding work? Buy it today!
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”